“They took my wallet with all my ID!”
It was a hot July day and Florence’s hub, Santa Maria Novella, was stinky and muggy. A tall woman with long dark hair was shrieking, louder almost than the screeching brakes of the arriving trains. Her red dress stuck to her as she waved her hands trying to act out what had just happened to her. A poor young man in an oversized Trenitalia uniform, who knew there was really nothing he could do, nodded as she spoke.
He diligently took notes on his tiny notepad with his tiny pencil.
You don’t want to be the red dress lady.
Freshly mugged, in a muggy train station, with no hope in Herculaneum of getting your bag back.
You want to avoid alllll BS when you’re traveling. You’re on a vacation, not at work!
You’re in BSBY mode — BS Behind You mode.
Sadly, Italy scams are as common as Gucci grannies in Milan. Here are a few to look out for:
The Laundry Scam
I’ve used Italian hotel laundry services plenty of times without a problem. But then there was a problem. A 250-euro one.
Typically, laundries will charge you by the bag or by weight. I’ve always paid 20 to 50 euro for wash-and-fold service while traveling Italy. But beware of the hotels that charge a PER PIECE rate, because that’s the biggest scam going.
I was once presented with a 250 euro bill. For laundry. Yes — a 250 euro laundry bill for just a small bag of clothes. At this rate, forget my undies — they should be washing and pressing ME. I had never heard of a “per piece” rate, but that’s what this scammy “luxury” hotel charged. I flipped my lid when the bill came — I’m talking full ear steam — and they even told me the original rate was 350 but they had “cut me a deal.” Complete scam and ripoff? YES!
Ways to Avoid: Don’t let hotels take you to the cleaners. Ask reception for their rate list before you let them touch your dirty skivvies.
The Change Back Scam
If you pay in cash, a merchant used to tourists will often leave your money in view while he/she provides change. This is to protect both you and them from any nonsense. Tricksters like to offer a small bill, then claim it was a very large bill. The merchant who doesn’t leave the note in view while counting change can then fall prey to this scheme. But the opposite is also true — the ill-intended merchant can claim you provided a smaller bill than you did. Trust, but verify.
Ways to Avoid: At the cash register, don’t get distracted and always count your change. Remember how much money you put down.
The Pickpocket Scam
When you think of scams in Italy, this is the first one that comes to mind, right? Pickpockets are for real, and they’re working the “beat” like nobody’s business — inside trains and at train stations, at the vaporetto stops in Venice, on public transit, you name it. Sadly, many pickpockets are minors and pregnant women (they know that Italian laws will let them out faster than you can say “ciao wallet”).
Pickpockets have mastered every trick in the book, from distraction to elaborate multi-person schemes, to separate you from your valuables. They will whiz by on a motorbike and rip your bag from your hand, they will ride onto the sidewalk and snatch your thin-strapped purse from your body, they’ll grab your smartphone while you’re being your cute self snapping a cute selfie. Vigilance in the key word.
It’s very possible that this will never happen to you, so don’t live in fear — just be smart so that you don’t have to! This also means NEVER casually leave ANYTHING lying around. Don’t lay your phone or wallet down at the cashier to pay for something — someone in line could either slip it away or cover it with something so you don’t notice, and then take it. Always keep it in your hand, or zip it up in a pocket or bag while you pay.
Ways to Avoid: Keep your valuables as protected as possible, especially in crowded areas, in subway cars and on platforms, on buses and at bus stops. The closer they are to the front of your body where you can see them, the better.
The Fiscal Police Scam
This is a weird one, and not actually a scam — it’s the law in Italy, but it’s not an intuitive one, so tourists can be caught off guard. In Italy you must always remember to ask for a receipt when you pay for something if it isn’t given to you automatically. Why? Because there is so much tax evasion in this country that the burden also falls on the consumer to keep merchants honest. Can you believe it?
You are required to hang on to your receipt for 250 meters from the point of purchase (coffee included!). If the fiscal police stop you and you don’t have a receipt to prove you legally paid for your purchase, you could be fined 250 euro on the spot (the merchant will be audited on the spot as well). My first job in Italy was working at a gelateria and I personally witnessed the police fining customers who left the shop and didn’t have their receipt on them.
If the merchant put the receipt near the cash register, you didn’t take it, and you get stopped, only you get fined. There is no predictability as to when the fiscal police will be around — they’ll be dressed in plain clothes, and they can be in the historic center or in the periphery. You can live your entire life in Italy and never encounter them. On the other hand, it’s a fiscal officer’s job to hand out fines all day long, so they are out there.
Merchants, such as coffee bar and restaurant owners, often try to take advantage of the fact that you’re an unsuspecting tourist and will avoid giving you a receipt (they don’t pay taxes on what isn’t rung in). But don’t be fooled. Cashiers do NOT just forget. Every Italian shopkeeper is highly tuned into whether what they’re doing is “in nero” (under the table) or not. It’s like a religion — seeing how much you can put in your cash register without punching it into the till.
Ways to Avoid: Leave the store with a receipt, even if it’s for 1 euro.
The ATM Scam
Most banks no longer require you to use your card to open doors to access machines after hours. This is because thieves often put skimmers in those slots.
Ways to Avoid: If a card is required to open the door, either wait for someone to open it for you, move to another bank, or hold your breath and go. In any case, save your receipt in case anything happens so that you can trace it back.
The “Helper” Scam
These ones are really annoying. There are often people in train stations offering to “help” you carry luggage or use the ticket machine. At the very least, they’ll ask for a few coins in return. At the very worst they’re working with others who will slip something out of your bag while you’re distracted.
Ways to Avoid: Make sure you’ve packed practically — expect to have to carry your luggage by yourself up and down stairs, and plan accordingly. They’re less likely to approach you if you don’t look like you’re struggling. As for ticket machines, know that they work in English too. A simple “no, grazie” should be enough to let a would-be helper know you can handle it on your own.
Most visitors will enjoy a fabulous vacation here blissfully unaware that Italy scams even exist. But a single bad experience can taint your entire holiday and even ruin Italy for you forever, so it’s important to be armed with knowledge so that you can be mindful as you travel.
Have you ever fallen victim to any Italy scams? We’d love to hear your stories, and any advice you have for your fellow travelers. Comment below!
Bianca, I had my precious (and expensive) road bike stolen in the center of Bologna! I should have known better, I was watching it in the window while eating a plate (or two) of pasta. The second I went to the bathroom it was free for all. I came out and realized a guy had signaled to another guy it was time to steal it. I was so upset, mostly with myself – how could I have been so trusting 🙁
What a rotten experience, Alison!
There’s so much bike thieves working the cities and even if you have it locked up, it’s just a matter of time. I hate to report these things, but it does seem the right thing to do to tell people. So thanks for warning readers about bike thieves, because it’s a real issue. xx Bianca
My art history professor told us she witnessed a “fake baby” scam in Florence. One of the gypsys had what looked like a fussy baby walking nearby. As she approached, she threw the baby at the them! In their scramble to try and catch the baby, she grabbed for the purse and ran, leaving them with a fake baby doll!